Leadership Style Preference of Gen X and Y

Keywords: generation x leadership, generation y leadership

According to Nicholas (2009), today’s workforce can be distinguished into four groups of people. These four groups consisted of Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, the X Generation and the Y Generation. The proportion and impact of these four groups has changed over the years. In the 21st century, managing a workforce consisting of retiring Baby Boomers, Generation Xers and the newly entering Generation Yers will be a challenge (Rodriguez, Green & Ree, 2003). Many researchers have found that younger and older workers prefer different leadership style. As such, it is important that leaders understand these differences as they could have important impact on recruitment, motivation, productivity and retention of employees. This study attempts to identify the leadership style preference (if any) of Generation Xers and Generation Yers and its possible implications on management policy and decisions. These two groups of generational workers are selected because they are consecutive generations and it would be interesting to compare them (just as many studies have compared Baby Boomers and Generation Xers). While Generation Xers have been in the workforce for a significant time, Generation Yers are the emerging workforce of the new century. It would thus be interesting to ascertain whether these two generations of workers have any differences in their preferred leadership style.

Leadership Style Preference: A Comparison of Generation X and Generation Y


Generation is a term used to group people in a society based on historical time. According to Mannheim (1952), in order to share generational bonds, individuals must be born within the same historical and cultural context and be exposed to common experiences or events that occurred during their formative adult years. These experiences and events help to define the generation and shaped their attitudes and values. Because of their shared experiences, the generational groups often bring common approaches, ideas and values to the work place (Martin & Tulgan, 2001).

Generational Groups

Presently, there are four generations in the work place (Nicholas, 2009). They consisted of Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, the X Generation and the Y Generation. Traditionalists are the oldest of the workers. They were born before 1946 and were raised through world wars. This group is noted to be slow to embrace new things and are distrustful of any changes (Nicholas, 2009). Work was not considered a way for self-fulfilment but a means to earn a living (Smith & Clurman, 1997). Most of the Traditionalists would be nearing the end of their employment age.

The Baby Boomers are those born from 1946 to 1964. They are the post war generation which experienced good economic times. In the work place, Baby Boomers tend to be hard working, generally loyal to their employer and are willing to work with others (Yu & Miller, 2005). Baby Boomers are a group that lives to work (Tulgan, 2000) and they prefer a stable working environment (Loomis, 2000). Baby Boomers have been noted to fear technology and generally do not like changes (Raths, 1999).

Generation Xers (Gen X) are born between 1965 to 1980. They were brought up with Music Television (MTV) and video games and were mostly latchkey children (with hard working Baby Boomer parents) who had to learn to be independent at an early age (Tapscott, 1999). This might explain their need for freedom, autonomy and flexibility in the work place. This generation group has been found to be more independent, self-motivated and self-sufficient in the work place (Yu & Miller, 2005). They are loyal to their profession instead of employer and are more individualistic (Yu & Miller, 2005). They are probably the first generation of workers who are computer literate, most having used technology in school. As such, they are technically savvy and eager to be up to date on knowledge in their work (Yu & Miller, 2005).

Millennials, Echo Boomers, Generation Yers (Gen Y) and Nexters are some of the terms used to label the youngest generation group in the work force. They are born from 1981 to 2000. They are the most education-minded and techno-literate generation and have never known life without Compact Disks (CDs), computers and mobile phones (Hicks & Hicks, 1999; Martin & Tulgan, 2001). With a very focused and involved Baby Boomer parents, Gen Y grew up with busy schedules with sports, music lessons and scheduled play-dates occupying much of their time (Baldonado & Spangenburg, 2009). Global communication and access to instant information through the internet have very much influenced the beliefs and job expectations of Gen Y and has directly transformed Gen Y’s attitudes towards work, work ethics, values, job expectations and overall job satisfaction (Martin & Tulgan, 2001). In the work place, Gen Y are found to be more idealistic than Generation X (Baldonado & Spangenburg, 2009; Tulgan, 2000). They want flexibility in how they operate, are achievement-oriented and accustomed to accessing and sharing information quickly (Murphy, 2007). They prefer to learn through multimedia means (Nicholas, 2008).

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Leadership Styles

Leadership is defined as the process of influencing the activities of an individual or a group to achieve a certain objectives in a given situation (DuBrin, 1990). Studies have found that traditional criteria used to define successful leadership no longer fit into today’s modern work place (Davenport & Prusak, 1998). Instead, successful leaders are said to be able to adapt their leadership style according to the needs of their subordinates and situations.

Through literature review, the author found that there are many approaches to studying or categorising leadership. Leadership could be studied using trait theory, behavioural approach and contingency approach, just to name a few. According to the typology of leadership proposed by Pearce, Sims, Cox, Ball, Schnell, Smith and Trevino (2003), there are four leadership styles: directive leadership, transactional leadership, transformational leadership and empowering leadership.

Directive leadership relies primarily on power that the leader has. This type of leadership style uses direction, command, assigned goals, intimidation and reprimand as the key tools to influence subordinates’ behaviours (Pearce et al., 2003).

In transactional leadership, the leader clarifies the subordinates’ role and task requirements, initiates structure, provides rewards and displays considerations for subordinates (Daft, 1997). These leaders focus on the exchange of efforts and rewards to achieve maximal motivation (Pearce et al., 2003).

According to Daft (1997), transformational leaders are those who lead their followers by focusing on intangible qualities such as vision, shared values, relationships and provide common ground to engage their followers to bring about innovation and changes. Transformational leaders tend to transmit a sense of mission, delegate authority, emphasize problem solving and use reasoning as well as coaching and teaching (Bass, 1990).

Empowering leadership focuses on the development of the follower’s self-management and self-leadership skills as well as encouraging opportunity thinking and participative goal setting (Pearce et al., 2003). The delegation of power and authority to subordinates can increase their motivation to accomplish tasks. In fact, a study by Keller and Dansereau (1995) found that empowerment from supervisors enhances the self-worth of subordinates. According to Daft (1997), empowering subordinates means giving them four elements to allow them to act more freely to accomplish their tasks: information, knowledge, power and rewards.

Generational Groups and Leadership Styles

With more and more Baby Boomers (now aged 46 to 64 years old) retiring and more Gen Y (currently aged 10 to 29 years old) entering the work place, the demographic of the work place will be changed dramatically. The emerging new work force will be made up of predominantly Gen X (now aged 30 to 45 years old) and Gen Y workers.

According to Murphy (2007), different generational groups would have different expectation on work ethics, leadership and authority. Employees with different work characteristics have been found to be more effective and productive with different leadership style (Tulgan, 2000). Although these differences might be subtle, they could cause conflict, frustration and misunderstanding, if not managed properly (Murphy, 2007). Understanding generational diversity is important has it will help enhance the competitive edge of an organisation, improve recruitment and retention and as such create a better organisation (Baldonado & Spangenburg, 2009). Leaders thus need to be sensitive to the differing generational values, needs and expectations if they are to be effective in leading a multigenerational work force. This study is thus important as it attempts to identify and understand the leadership preference of the different generational workers.

Studies have found that Gen X and Baby Boomers prefers different leadership style (Yu & Miller, 2005). Given that Gen Y is a later generation than Gen X, it would be reasonable to expect differences in the leadership style preference between Baby Boomers and Gen Y due to the huge historical time and life experience differences. This comparison would thus not be very interesting. Since Gen X and Gen Y are back to back generation, and since the size and impact of Gen Y in the work place is growing, it would thus be interesting to ascertain the leadership style preference of these two generational groups instead. As such, the key independent variable for this study will be generation (specifically, Gen X and Gen Y) as measured by age.

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Based on further literature review on the above four leadership styles proposed by Pearce et al. (2003), the author felt that these leadership styles can be differentiated by their extent on the following bipolar constructs: autocratic verses democratic, directive verses participative, task oriented verses relationship oriented and transactional verses transformational. These four bipolar themes will thus form the dependent variables for this study.

Given the characteristics written in literature of the two generational workers, it is hypothesised that Gen X workers will tend to prefer leadership styles that are comparatively more autocratic, directive, task oriented and transactional while Gen Y workers will prefer leadership styles that are more democratic, participative, relationship oriented and transformational.



The participants will be Gen X and Gen Y employees currently in the work force. According to the reports published by the Singapore Department of Statistics (2009), the top three sectors which employed the most people are (1) community, social and personal service, 2) manufacturing and 3) wholesale and retail trade, respectively. As such, the author felt that it will be appropriate to select a sample of Gen X and Gen Y workers from these three sectors. A review of studies that compare generational work force either focused on one or two key sectors. As such, the decision to focus on three sectors in this study seems reasonable.

According to the Singapore Department of Statistics (2009), there were a total of 24,029 establishments employing 375,800 workers in the community, social and personal service (CSPS) sector and 8,166 establishments employing 304,500 workers in the manufacturing sector. From the same official source, the number of establishments in the wholesale and retail trade (WRT) sector was 54,361 employing 277,000 workers. By simple averaging, the average workers employed in each CSPS establishment was 16 workers while that of a manufacturing and WRT establishment was 37 and five respectively. To obtain similar participant sample size from each of the three sectors, more establishments in the WRT sector will be selected compare to the other two sectors.

In view of the high cost involved in collecting data from all the establishments in the three sectors, the author intends to use systematic sampling technique to select the sample establishments. Every 1,000th CSPS establishment, 800th manufacturing establishment and 750th WRT establishment will be selected from the list of establishments to be obtained from the Singapore Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (formerly the Registry of Companies and Businesses). This will result in the selection of 24 establishments from the CSPS sector employing 384 workers (i.e. 24 x 16), 10 establishments from the manufacturing sector employing 370 workers (i.e. 10 x 37) and 72 establishments from the WRT sector employing 360 workers (i.e. 72 x 5). Total number of 1,114 participants in the target sample.

All the Gen X and Gen Y workers in these selected establishments will form the final sample size. The author does not have any estimation of the proportion of Gen X and Gen Y workers in each of the three sectors but will assume that they are similar. The author hoped to achieve a final sample size of 650 participants. The final useable responses will depend on the respond rate. This targeted number is deemed reasonable as the author found two other independent studies which had 437 and 805 participants respectively.


The author intends to use questionnaire to obtain responses from the target population. Questionnaire will enable the author to collect data from a large sample compared to other methods such as focus groups or interviews. In other similar generational studies, questionnaires were commonly used. As such, the author felt that questionnaire will be appropriate for this study.

In order to develop the questionnaire, three focus groups (i.e. one from each sector) will be held to further confirm the four bipolar themes of leadership behaviours identified earlier. Each of this focus group will comprise of six to eight participants randomly selected from each of the targeted sector.

The final questionnaire will consist of two sections. Section A will consist of six questions regarding the demographics background of the participants. Section B will consist of questions on leadership behaviours developed from the four bipolar themes with inputs from the focus group discussions. From a few independent studies that made use of questionnaires, the number of questions on leadership behaviours ranged from 18 to 50. For a start, this study will have 30 questions. Examples of questions will include “A leader should make decision without seeking inputs from his subordinates”, A leader should provide subordinates opportunities for professional growth”, “A leader should create a fun work environment”, “A leader should have vision”, etc. The participants are required to rate the questions on a five-point Likert scale with 1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree.

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A pilot study will be conducted and factor analysis will be done on the data to ensure that the various themes of bipolar leadership behaviours are well represented in the questionnaire. Revisions will be made depending on the results of the factor analysis. Internal reliability of the questionnaire will be checked using the Cronbach’s alpha. A Cronbach’s alpha of 0.75 or more is acceptable.


The questionnaire will be sent to James Cook University’s Ethics Committee for clearance. It is expected that clearance will be obtained as there are no serious ethical issues such as deception, infliction of pain or fear, etc in this study.

Once cleared, the questionnaire together with an information sheet on the study (Appendix A) and a consent form (Appendix B) will be emailed to the participants. For participants who do not have emails, the respective Human Resource Department of the establishments will be requested to distribute the documents to the participants. The participants can email back their completed questionnaire directly to the author or to their respective Human Resource Department for delivery to the author.


Both descriptive and inferential statistics will be conducted on the data collected. Descriptive statistics will include the age range, mean age, gender distribution, industry distribution, ethnic group distribution, education level distribution and vocation distribution. For inferential statistics, multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) will be conducted to test for significant differences between the variables under investigation. The results will be considered significant when p < 0.05.


In generational studies and literature comparing Baby Boomers and Gen X, the results generally indicated significant differences between the two groups in terms of work attitudes, work expectations and leadership preferences. As such, it is expected that some significant differences will also be found in this generational study between Gen X and Gen Y. This is because these two generations of workers are brought up in difference historical time and experiences. Such differences are expected to have an impact on their work characteristics and leadership preference.

However, the author felt that the historical and experiential differences between Gen X and Gen Y may not be as big as that of Baby Boomers and Gen X. Baby Boomers are the post war generation while Gen X are the computer generation. These two historical times are very different. While Gen X is the computer generation, Gen Y is the digital generation. Although there are differences, the author felt that most of the Gen X may have transited smoothly into the digital age as well. Technology is no stranger to Gen X. Based on this simple comparison, the author felt that there could be lesser differences between Gen X and Gen Y workers. The results will only be known when real data is analysed.

The author felt that the key limitation to the study is that only three sectors of the economy will be selected as target population. As such, there may be some concern on whether the results can be generalised to the whole population. In addition, the three sectors may have attributes which attract certain generation or type of people. This may compound the results. Should this study be replicated, perhaps, more sectors could be included although this may increase the costs of the study.

Besides age, other demographic data such as gender, ethic group, education level, etc. can be used as independent variables. Differences on these variables and the dependent variables could thus be studied.

Future study could include more sectors as mentioned above. In addition, it would be interesting to study the leadership style of Gen Y as they begin to take on leadership roles in the work force. Their leadership style can then be compared to the other generational groups to ascertain whether there are any significant differences and if so, which aspects. A comparison of the leadership style of Gen Y males and Gen Y females could be studied too.

Also interesting would be to find out the leadership style preference of Baby Boomers and Gen X workers on their Gen Y leaders. This topic will be very dynamic as roles are reversed and many new historical time and experiential factors come into play.

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